February 23, 2023
Newer Isn’t Always Better- “Socratic Seminar” and Student Learning at VCS
In early Greece, there lived a man named Socrates. He is often acknowledged as the founder of Western philosophy and is also considered one of the first (and perhaps preeminent) moral philosophers. All of what we know about Socrates comes from the writings of his pupil, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In the Apology, Plato writes, “I [Socrates] am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.” Socrates’ style of teaching is well known, and the reason for which he was referred to as the “gadfly” – his manner was highly engaging and involved (often intentionally agitative) questions which inspired critical thinking.
What is a “Socratic Seminar” and Why is it an Effective Learning Tool?
Socratic Seminar is an engaging instructional format, consisting of two groups of students arranged in circles (i.e. “inner circle” and “outer circle”), in which a teacher facilitates idea-centered discussion between students on a rich, idea-stimulating text in order to increase active learning.
Here are some key reasons why Socratic Seminar is a useful instructional tool at VCS:
- It develops critical thinking (review my previous blog post about critical thinking). Because socratic seminar is based on quality, substantive texts, students have SOMETHING about which to think critically (unlike much of the “literature” in public schools proposing 21st century skills who use critical thinking as a buzzword).
- Students must have good reason for their ideas. Socratic Seminar requires them to consider why they believe what they do, and ideas which aren’t meritorious are respectfully challenged.
- Extrapolation of a text or an idea is perhaps the highest level of understanding – Socratic Seminar encourages this.
What Kinds of Texts Do Our Students Study in Socratic Seminar?
Socratic Seminar texts are chosen for their richness in ideas, issues, and values and their ability to stimulate extended, thoughtful dialogue. A seminar text can be drawn from readings in literature, history, science, math, health, and philosophy or from works of art or music. A good text raises important questions in the participants’ minds, questions for which there are no right or wrong answers. At the end of a successful Socratic Seminar, participants often leave with more questions than they brought with them.
How is Socratic Seminar Utilized at VCS?
Socratic seminar is a tool often used in classrooms in middle school and high school. It is often utilized for analysis of a text / idea, comparison of (or relationship between) texts / ideas, integrating knowledge and ideas from various disciplines, summative reflection, and Biblical / moral discussions.
I recently had the opportunity to observe a Socratic Seminar in high school English teacher Cassie Taylor’s classroom (photo below). The students were conducting a socratic seminar on the classic memoir, Night. The author, Elie Wiesel, shares his experiences while held captive in German concentration camps during World War II. Students considered deeply ethical questions on topics such as morality and human suffering, all from a Biblical Worldview.
Please feel free to review Ms. Taylor’s entire list of questions on the text. I believe you’ll find the discussion topics both engaging and inspiring.
If you are a prospective family considering VCS, I encourage you to come onsite, take a tour, and learn more about what makes a VCS education exceptional.
Head of School